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Found In the Archives: Claud Thornton's Traveling Crime Museum

In March 1941, Jack Delano was working for the federal government's Farm Security Administration (FSA), photographing the relocation of area farmers during the construction of Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.

In addition to the farmers and the housing conditions of the construction workers, Delano found interest in the roadside culture of camp followers that catered to the construction workers: "gas stations, barbecue stands, and amusement centers."

Among these was a traveling sideshow "crime museum" that Delano, according to the Library of Congress, described as, "consisting of dilapidated effigies of famous criminals run by an old shell-shocked World War veteran."

Little is known about the museum's creator, Claud Thornton. His military records do not survive, but based on Delano's description of him as a shell-shocked veteran of World War I, it's hard to avoid imagining the sort of action he might have seen that, followed by the Depression, put him on the road with these papier-mache figures of John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and other well-known criminals (George Washington and Joe Louis are examples of "what you may become if you go straight").

When I first saw these images, now in the collections at the Library of Congress, I assumed they were taken by Delano's colleague, Ben Shahn, who photographed extensively in North Carolina for the FSA and was drawn to this sort of rough-hewn folk art. Seen through a sensibility more similar to Shahn's, I find Thornhill and his crime museum as a sort of evangelical vaudeville act transformed into something like a darkly beautiful set of ballads.

Like a lot of old ballads they were meant originally as morality tales, but they appeal to us in the modern world for their unapologetic starkness and extremism of character.

Found in the Archives , a Picture Show miniseries running at the beginning of each month, features archival films and found images selected by researcher Rich Remsberg.

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Rich Remsberg